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How to moderate the power of lobbyists

By Lee H. HamiltonDirector of the Center on Congress, Indiana University

October 15, 2011

There is a fundamental question raised by lobbying of the Congress. It is this: Can we temper its excesses without destroying its usefulness as a valued component of the system?


There are roughly 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington at the moment, and they spend huge sums of money on their work — $3.5 billion last year, according to the Center on Responsive Politics. This money goes into campaign contributions, independent election expenditures, questionable grassroots campaigns, wooing legislators with golf tours, cruises, gifts to favorite charities and the like.


It has a direct impact not only on how members of Congress look at issues, but also on what issues they decide to look at in the first place. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it can skew what takes place on Capitol Hill toward the interests of those who can provide this money, and away from those who cannot.


Yet lobbyists are also indispensable to lawmaking. Most are principled people who know that their word is their bond. When done well, lobbying helps the governing process work. The best of its practitioners know that what lawmakers need is information — straightforward, understandable, and accurate. Lobbyists help members of Congress understand the issues before them and gauge how a given piece of legislation will affect the various constituencies affected by it. Members of Congress are so pressed for time and confronted by so many varied matters of importance that they have no choice but to rely on lobbyists to help them sort out both the facts and the consequences of the decisions they have to make.


So as a nation, we are left with a challenge. How do we counter-balance the impact of all the money that lobbyists wield, so that Congress pays attention to the voices of ordinary Americans and serves the country’s best interests? In other words, how do we safeguard what’s good about lobbying — its role in providing information — while moderating the perceived or real consequences of the billions of dollars that lobbyists spend?


This is by no means impossible. Lobbyists are already regulated, but there’s room for improvement. One important measure that could be put in place immediately would be complete, real-time disclosure of lobbying contacts with legislators and regulators. There are no technical reasons this can’t be done, only the objections of politicians. The more sunlight on the process, the more the voters will know about lobbyists and the issues they advocate.


I’d even go further: I favor the fairly radical steps of prohibiting members of Congress from accepting contributions from firms that lobby them, and banning lobbyists from contributing to members they lobby. As reformers argue, it’s fine for lobbyists to plead their case, but they shouldn’t be able to pay off the jury. I’m not so naive as to believe that either of these measures will pass anytime soon — or perhaps ever.


It also makes sense to slow the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the offices of the lobby corps. Overall, according to a new study by the online disclosure site LegiStorm, 5,400 former congressional staffers and almost 400 former lawmakers have become lobbyists over the past decade. And the Washington Post recently revealed that more than 100 lobbyists for defense companies, Wall Street firms and other industries used to work for the 12 members of the “supercommittee” charged with finding ways to reduce the national debt. As the panel moves forward, its members will no doubt be hearing from their former advisers.


Congress also needs an institution, similar to the Congressional Budget Office, to give it unbiased and unvarnished analysis of pending issues each week. While such an operation would hardly eliminate the need for lobbyists, it would go beyond background information and get into the pros and cons of pending legislation with no axe to grind, no special agenda — and no money spigot for legislators to worry about.


Finally, I believe a big part of the answer lies with individual members of Congress and with the American people. Members have the ultimate responsibility to assess and judge a lobbyist: where he comes from, for whom he speaks, what his interests are. They also need to ask themselves how much they’re influenced by the campaign contributions they receive and whether they are giving careful consideration to all sides on any given policy issue, including how the policy might affect ordinary Americans.


Similarly, we all have to step up as Americans and engage actively with our legislators. The more vigorous the conversation between our elected representatives and their constituents, the less of a hold lobbyists will enjoy.


Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.